Former astronaut stresses self-belief to Luchinsky Lecture audience

Jeff Rice
January 26, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Long before Leland Melvin traveled to space or became the head of NASA’s education program, he accidentally set fire to his parents’ rug with his first chemistry set. And before that, the former astronaut developed the seeds of a firm, life-long self-belief, thanks in part to the famed children’s book, "The Little Engine That Could."

It was a message he found in another children’s book, "Curious George," that Melvin imparted to an audience of more than 300 Penn State students, alumni, and others Monday night during the Schreyer Honors College’s annual Mark Luchinsky Memorial Lecture, and to which he attributes his numerous triumphs over adversity.

“Make sure you have a man or woman in the yellow hat that has your back,” Melvin said, a reference to Curious George's friend in the book. “I’ve always had at least one person that helped me, no matter what happened to me.”

Melvin, who flew a pair of missions on the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2008 and 2009 and logged more than 500 hours in space, grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. Legendary tennis player Arthur Ashe, who lived only a few houses away, was one of Melvin's earliest heroes. His other heroes were his parents, Deems and Grace, who “taught me about grit, perseverance, and not giving up,” he said. “To keep going no matter what the circumstances are.”

That grit helped Melvin, a star wide receiver at the University of Richmond, pivot to a graduate degree in materials science engineering after hamstring injuries derailed his NFL career. It helped him overcome an underwater training accident that left him completely deaf for several weeks and medically disqualified him for space flight, and the loss of his friends and colleagues who were aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated as it returned to Earth in 2003. Melvin would later speak at each of the seven astronauts’ memorial services about their sacrifice.

He has had several people help him along the way, including NASA’s then-chief flight surgeon Rich Williams, who signed a waiver clearing Melvin for space flight.

Melvin’s setbacks only made him more determined to keep going, he said.

“I believed that anything is possible,” he said. “And it truly is.”

Melvin later became the NASA Associate Administrator for Education and he remains an advocate for STEAM education, speaking to groups around the world. Following the virtual lecture on Jan. 25, he fielded questions from roughly four dozen Schreyer Scholars about leadership, overcoming challenges, and pursuing passions. He encouraged the students to make sure they were getting the self-care they needed, reminded them “to find joy in the simple pleasures,” and urged them to turn dreams into goals.

“Start owning who you are right now,” Melvin said. “You are the future. You are going to be doing whatever you dream and desire. So own it now.”

The Luchinsky Memorial Lecture Series was endowed by family and friends to honor the memory of Mark Luchinsky through the support of a speaker who exemplifies intellectual honesty, personal integrity, and joy in learning. Luchinsky, a Schreyer Scholar and biochemistry major, graduated first in his class in 1992 from Thomas Jefferson High School and was a member of the Penn State Golden Key Society and the Alpha Epsilon Delta Premedical Honor Society. Known for his intellectual honesty and integrity, Luchinsky enjoyed the study of all subjects and loved the classics, sports, poetry, history and geography.

The 2021 Mark Luchinsky Memorial Lecture was co-sponsored by the Presidential Leadership Academy, the Office of Educational Equity, the Multicultural Resource Center, the Gender Equity Center, Penn State Hillel, the Multicultural Association of Schreyer Scholars, and the Schreyer Honors College Student Council.

  • Leland Melvin and attendees of the 2021 Mark Luchinsky Memorial Lecture

    Leland Melvin asks Schreyer Honors College Scholars and staff to look up to the stars near the end of a virtual discussion following the Mark Luchinsky Memorial Lecture on Jan. 25.

    IMAGE: Schreyer Honors College
Last Updated January 27, 2021